In Northern France, about an hour outside
Paris, lies the central nervous system of the French football machine. Buried in the
plush green woods of the Rambouillet Forest, the Institut national du football de Clairefontaine,
or simply INF Clairefontaine, is perhaps the most celebrated national football academy
in the world. Clairefontaine is responsible for refining
and perfecting the technical and tactical acumen of players like Thierry Henry, Louis
Saha, Medhi Benatia, Nicolas Anelka, William Gallas, Hatem Ben Arfa, Abou Diaby, Olivier
Giroud, Blaise Matuidi, and the recent crown jewel of
the program, PSG’s Kylian Mbappe. There were 50 players born in France representing
various nations at the 2018 World Cup, an astounding figure that demonstrates the scope
of France’s ability to produce football players. But how did the French perfect the
concept of player development? How has this country continuously produced the most exciting,
powerful, technical, and tactically smart players on the planet? Quite simply, by developing the best individuals
for the benefit of the team. The brainchild of former French Football President
Fernand Sastre and head coach Stefan Kovacs, Clairefontaine has housed the French National
Team since 1988, and was the base camp for the 1998 World Cup winning side. Kovacs, a Romanian born ethnic Hungarian,
and the only foreigner to ever coach the French national side, was inspired by the communist
training centres of his homeland, rigid camps where individual skill
was obsessively honed for the good of the collective. At its most basic level, Clairefontaine is
a regional academy for boys from the Paris suburbs,an area that has consistently produced
incredibly talented footballers. Boys aged 13-15 from the Ile-de-France region apply
for the program, with 23 being selected each season. The players stay at Clairefontaine throughout
the week and return to their local sides to play matches on the weekend. The philosophy at Clairefontaine begins with
individual technical perfection; being able to turn quickly, improving your weaker foot,
and tactical decision-making. The students are put through the paces in highly-specific
and regimented drills before ever touching a full-sized pitch. But French Football is less concerned with
a larger playing philosophy (unlike, say Barcelona’s La Masia) and more focused on individual player
development. While all the youth teams play in a 4-3-3, the emphasis is on creating the
best individual players in relation to the team. Jean-Claude Lefargue the director of
the program, told The Telegraph in 2018 that French coaches
are starting to embrace the philosophy of Clairefontaine: “All the coaches of the professional clubs
come through Clairefontaine. Over the years we have been able to convince them of the
philosophy, about what they have to find in a player. And so we have started to have this
common idea across France. It takes time to convince others, to train the coaches, but
little by little we have all started to do the same thing.” When Lefargue refers to a “philosophy”
he is talking about player development, not tactics. Lefargue and Clairefontaine produce incredibly
astute players that are tactically malleable and technically proficient, able to play whatever
role their are assigned. Kylian Mbappe’s presence on the right wing for France in 2018
and PSG at times is an example of this philosophy in action.
There is a sort of ironic simplicity in this philosophy, to produce the best individuals
for the good of the collective, and Lefargue explained the idea to The Telegraph: “I use the example of an actor. An actor
has to play the best role possible, but only according to the role he has. If it is a sad
role, he has to be sad. In a match, it is the same thing. If you have a really good
actor, you cannot just give him a small role. You have to make more of him.” The French National side has played very different
styles over the course of the last 30 years, perhaps best evidenced by their international
double at World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000. In 1998, the French were cautious and solid,
with the much-maligned striker Stephane Guivarc’h not getting on the scoresheet all tournament
(much like Olivier Giroud 20 years later). At the World Cup, the French relied on the
individual brilliance of Zinedine Zidane and their defensive backline of Lillian Thuram,
Marcel Desailly, Frank LeBouef and Bixente Lizarazu. Two years later, France had Nikolas Anelka
and Thierry Henry, two Clairefontaine graduates and two of the finest strikers of the era,
leading the line, and romped to the title based off their superior speed, power, and
technique. In the span of two years, France’s footballing
actors were able to put forth two stylistically polar productions, but both ended in silverware. When compared to the Dutch or Italians, there
is no real “French football philosophy,” besides creating the most technically precise,
quick, strong, and tactically astute players. Nevertheless, a tension between playing philosophies
characterized much of modern French football.
As Michael Cox writes in his book Zonal Marking, “Post-war French Football was effectively
a battle between two contrasting ideologies, one that favoured physicality and hard work,
and the other that placed emphasis on technique and style.” One must look no further than the 2018 World
Cup-winning double pivot of N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba to see these two supposedly
contrasting ideologies working in perfect harmony. The Clairefontaine model has now been copied
throughout the world, even La Masia can learn from Lefargue’s program as he proudly stated,
“La Masia came here a long time ago. We have the same philosophy. Not necessarily
the pass for a pass, but working for the collective.” England’s St George’s Park has been largely
based off the Clairefontaine development model. With a talented new generation coming through,
England is starting to reap the benefits of these ideas. The French football machine has shown its
ability to produce a neverending procession of Golden Generations since Clairefontaine’s
inception. They are perhaps the greatest modern footballing country, armed with a simple philosophy
based on producing the best possible players. If football is a game of actors, the world
is truly a stage for French football.